September 27, 2013

Study Abroad: Life in Shanghai as a Global MBA Student

When I found out I was going to be part of the first batch of Global MBA students at Weatherhead School of Management, I was over the moon. What an exciting opportunity to experience three vastly different cultures, study at three well-established, top-notch universities and live in three amazing countries (China, India and US).

So how does one prepare for this kind of challenge?

First of all, how does one pack? The international office at Weatherhead told us it would be difficult to find certain items such as deodorant, shampoo and other hygienic products. While it is true that you can’t find these things in the smaller supermarket, there is a surprising number of international supermarkets in Shanghai where you can find all of these products. So while it does take a little more effort, you can find all your favorite products here. The challenge is to know exactly what you are buying, since everything is written in Chinese. In my first week here, I wanted to buy body lotion but ended up with shower gel. All you can do is laugh about it.

Before I left, I thought doing research on the three countries and getting as much information as possible would best prepare me. I was wrong.  Being informed helps a lot, but it doesn’t avoid certain challenges such as culture shock. Most of the information that you find online is about the big culture differences. One could even say that they promote stereotypes, for example that Chinese restaurants are not as hygienic as western ones. While this is true in some cases, it’s definitely not true as a general statement.  We have found some amazing restaurants here!

What I was not prepared for are the different culture shocks that I would be experiencing. Not only do you have to adapt to living in Shanghai; a new environment where you can’t understand or speak the language, you also have to adapt to the different cultures within the Global MBA group.

The Global MBA class consists of Chinese and Indian students, and the American cohort of which one student is from Iran and one student is from Belgium. This makes the classroom experience very interesting since we all have a different perspective on business. It also makes it challenging at times. We all have different styles of learning and communicating in class and frustrations can arise. The Indian students are very outspoken. They tend to raise their hands a lot in class, and they ask a lot of questions. I can tell that our Chinese professors are not used to that. They like to get on with the class and finish the slides in a timely manner. The Chinese students are much less outspoken. They tend to ask questions after class directly to the professor. What I have heard about the American students is that we are very polite in asking our questions. So you can see how even a simple thing such as asking questions in class can cause frustration. I have found that humor helps in a lot of these situations. We laugh when yet another Indian raises their hand for the umpteenth time. 

Luckily, we had Prof. Tony Lingham’s leadership class during our first week in Shanghai. We got to know each other pretty quickly, and he helped us with finding common traits among all of us, regardless of our culture. That helped us overcome the many cultural differences. We were divided into groups according to our learning styles. Learning styles are indicative of how we interpret tasks, how we learn and how we achieve our goals. For example, just knowing that your Indian classmate needs a lot of details and information before he will even begin the assignment helps a lot with your tolerance level towards him. It also clarifies that some frustrations aren’t culture related. In the beginning, I assumed that all of the Indian students had the same learning style since their behavior in class is so similar to each other's, but the opposite was true. Professor Lingham taught us to work together with all learning styles regardless of identity and culture.

I started thinking about how one can prepare for culture shock. After all, I will be facing this all over again when we go to XLRI in Jamshedpur, India. Will I face the same challenges as here? Will I have to re-adapt to being in such a multicultural group after spending one month away from them?

What I have learned is that you can’t avoid culture shock. That doesn’t mean you that can’t learn how to deal with it.  I found that writing down my frustrations and the different ways of how I dealt with them helps. I plan on re-reading my notes when I go to India, that way I will remember what went through my head during my first few weeks in Shanghai, and how I adapted. Another coping mechanism is talking to my classmates. Dealing with culture shock is easier when you can talk about it with people that share the same situation.

A big factor that contributes to culture shock and being homesick is food. Chinese food is so different from American food. I found that that was the first thing that I started to miss. Luckily there are many solutions to this problem. There are websites where you can order Western food, and there is even a Western restaurant very close to campus that serves delicious spaghetti!


Our experience in Shanghai has been amazing so far. It hasn’t been without challenges, but I also see myself growing as I strive to overcome them. I can also see my classmates grow with me. I am excited to see where this journey will take us!


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Catherine Van Ryckeghem, Global MBA '15, Global MBA Contributor


Catherine Van Ryckeghem is a first year Global MBA student at Weatherhead School of Management. She is currently studying in Shanghai China as part of her two-year program.

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